The sky’s the limit — an interview with astrophysicist Iryna Chemerynska
March 7, 2023

The sky’s the limit — an interview with astrophysicist Iryna Chemerynska

Iryna Chemerynska is a 22-year-old Ukrainian girl. Like most other girls, she likes books, cats and stars. And while she definitely knows a lot about books and cats, her true passion and area of expertise is the sky. Ira is doing a PhD in astrophysics at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris. What does it mean and how does it feel? What are the main challenges for girls in STEM and how to overcome them? Ira shares her experience by answering our questions below.

What was your way path towards your current activities? I would like to say that my life was written in the stars. I was amazed by the night sky from the first time I looked up. But being an astronomer didn’t sound real at the time and it was kind of a child’s dream. Like all the other kids, I went to school, I was literally interested in everything, participating in competitions, different kinds of performances and so on were a part of my life. I have tried everything, which helped me to understand that astronomy is what I’m really looking for. Then I realised that being an astronomer is not just an unreachable dream, this is my future. I sent only two applications to the university, one for astronomy, another  for physics. 

Have people ever been surprised by your career choice? Honestly, every time. Probably only my colleagues are not surprised, as they chose astronomy too. 

Could you tell me a little bit about your research? What is it about?

As you may know, astronomy includes many different topics that you can explore (planets, stars, galaxies, cosmic structure and so on) and covers the entire history of the Universe: from the Big Bang (BB) to today. In my research, I’m dealing with highly redshifted galaxies. In common words, with very very distant objects to analyse their formation and evolution at the time when the Universe was young (one gigayear after the BB). Also, it means that these galaxies are young. Why is it important to analyse them? For example, it may help us to understand dark matter and check if the current model of the Universe is right or not. For that we used data from a very famous telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and now from the James Webb Space Telescope.

How has your life changed since the beginning of the war? 

On the morning of 24 February, my world shifted. The naive concept of the world vanished in the air with the missiles. In the first minute, I felt weak and helpless being 2,000km away from Ukraine. But at the same moment, I decided I would do everything I could to help my country. Since then, with friends, we have been going to demonstrations, sharing the news, donating and always volunteering. Doing science also keeps me motivated, because I am sure that later I can share that knowledge of the Universe with people of my country who are also inspired by it. I know that life will never be the same as it was before, and with the war, it seems like life may lose any sense. But trust me, there is always something that can help you move on: routine, people, science…

Tell us more about Safe Point Paris. What is its main goal and what is your role?

Safe Point Paris is my heart and soul. It’s not just a place where you can help displaced people from Ukraine, it’s something more. It is a place where people from different countries are united by their willingness to help. Safe Point Paris was opened in the first few days when the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. It’s based at the Cité Universitaire (the main student residence in Paris). Till now we work in two main directions. The first is helping people who are affected by war and moved here, and the second is sending supplies to Ukraine. The most important thing that is required from volunteers and I is to be there for people, letting our centre be open for them and for Ukraine as long as they need it. 

How can people support your activities?

The simplest way is by sharing information about us. Ukrainians who moved to Paris should know that we are here for them and ready to help. And also to let people know that we are still collecting donations, so if they want to help Ukraine, they can come to us.

What are the main challenges you are facing? 

The main challenge for me now is that I can’t see my cat 24/7 because we are in different countries. At least he is happy with my sister back at home. Anything else I can manage, it’s not a problem 🙂

What helps you to recharge the batteries and keep on moving?

Probably the answer is simple – routine. It gives me a feeling of stability which I lost with the war. And also paying attention to small details and enjoying them, like sunrise.

The most valuable lessons learned so far?

It is important to love and appreciate every second of your life. Even if you are low.

Which people inspire you?

People who know what they stand for.

Your biggest dream?

Now I have only one dream – to see the victory of Ukraine.

What advice can you give to younger girls, who are considering a career in STEM?

Don’t be afraid of choosing what you like, even if someone says it is not for girls. Just follow your dream and be passionate about what you do. That’s it. And follow your heart!

Anything else you would like to say?

I’m grateful for such an opportunity to share my experience. And, dear readers, remember that maybe not everything is written in the stars, but your story can be written only by you. Enjoy it!

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